Besides King Arthur, Robin Hood is one of my favorite legendary heroes. I was introduced to the Robin Hood story via the 1973 animated Disney Robin Hood film. Which means I always imagine Robin Hood as fox, naturally this image clashes with most literary depictions. Here are some of my favorite takes on the Hood story.
Originally published in 1820, Ivanhoe is a historical fiction novel about one of the last remaining noble Saxon families in England. In 1194, the time period of this novel, most of the nobility were of Norman descent. Wilfred Ivanhoe is the main protagonist. By now you are probably wondering why this book is on this list. While Robin Hood is not the main protagonist, he does show up as a secondary character. Robin and his merry men swing in and out of the narrative as needed. Scott’s depiction and characterization of Robin Hood significantly shaped the modern legend of a cheerful outlaw of noble birth. Legends about the Hood date back much farther than 1820, but the Hood depicted in those stories significantly differs from the hero we know today. Without Scott’s popular embellishment, the Hood would remain a dark and mysterious character. Because Robin Hood is not the main protagonist, there is little in the way of background story. All we know is that Robin is good with a bow and arrow and has a band of loyal “merry” thieves. Also, Robin is used to represent Englishness and nationalism. So Robin is not really a character, he is more of a symbol. Scott uses the Hood legend as a plot device to propel the narrative forward. So if you are looking for an in-depth retelling of the Robin Hood legend, this is not that book. But the book is great and I recommend reading it because Ivanhoe is an interesting protagonist.
Ivanhoe, Dover Publications, 2004, 9780486436777
This book holds a special place in my reading history, it was the first Robin Hood book I read. Published in 1883, Pyle’s book solidified Sir Walter Scott’s depiction of a heroic Robin Hood. The main narrative arc focuses on how Robin becomes an outlaw and how several recognizable characters end up joining his band. Pyle’s portrayal is vastly different from the original ballads, which depict Robin as a crook whose crimes are motivated by personal desires, not altruism.The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood met with almost immediate success and permanently changed public perception about the Robin Hood Legend. I love this book, but there are some problems. First, do not expect Maid Marian to make a substantial appearance. Marian was not in the original ballads, she was added later in order to add a romantic dimension to the tale. Pyle tried to stay true to the original ballads, so Marian is rarely mentioned and never interacts with Robin. Second, the novel was published in 1883 and the prose reflects this fact. The writing and pacing is similar to Dickens, expect a lot of words no longer used in the modern lexicon. Third, Robin managed to elude all his enemies by simply changing clothes. When he is not wearing green, no one recognizes him. That is the stuff of legends. Finally, there are two endings: a merry ending everyone will recognize and an epilogue that follows Robin all the way to his tear-jerking death. Consider yourself adequately warned.
The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, Townsend, 2005, 9781591940432
Lawhead is one of my favorite authors, which is why he keeps appearing on all these lists. The King Raven Trilogy consists of three books: Hood, Scarlet, and Tuck. In this retelling Lawhead re-imagines the Hood legend as taking place in the late eleventh century along the border regions between Wales and England. The main protagonist is not named Robin and no one is overly merry, actually everyone is depicted as gritty war-hardened warriors. Most of the narrative explores the repercussions faced by the generation growing up after the Norman Conquest of Britain. This trilogy takes place during the time depicted in the original ballads. While I love this retelling, I did not place it higher because I have a couple problems with the narrative. First, the pacing is a little off between books. Of the three, Scarlet has the best pacing and the strongest writing. Tuck is a overly wordy and would have flowed better with a slightly tighter narrative. Hood was a great first book but pacing suffers due to character development. Second, Lawhead uses third person in Hood and Tuck, but first person in Scarlet. I am not sure why he switched perspectives, but Will Scarlet was a charming narrator. Third, Marian was not Lawhead’s best female depiction. She spends most of the trilogy sulking and pointing out the hypocrisy of Norman nobles while blatantly ignoring her own. Most of these complaints are superficial and in no way detract from the overall story. Lawhead is a fantastic writer and his take on Robin Hood is great. I highly recommend this retelling.
In this retelling Kluger inverts the tale and casts the traditional villain as the hero. I was highly skeptical about reading this book, I prefer Robin as the hero. However, Kluger’s tale is an interesting take on a well-established tale. While The Sheriff of Nottingham was not phenomenal, I still enjoyed the narrative more than I thought I would. In this book, the infamous sheriff is one Philip Mark-an actual French soldier of fortune. Mark was appointed to the Nottingham sheriff position by King John in the early 13th Century. Instead of being a villain, Mark is a conflicted soul who is torn between duty and his desire to root out the pervasive corruptness sweeping across the land. The idealistic sheriff is facing great pressure from a seething gentry. To save himself, the sheriff strikes a bargain with the mysterious Robin Hood-a brazen woodsman and staunch opponent to the King’s laws. There a few problems with this novel. First, the prose is rather stiff and the narrative does not have a nice flow. Some parts are noticeably choppy. Second, I found the novel to be a little on the dry side. This is probably because of some of Kluger’s word choices. Third, the Sheriff is a little too noble and upstanding. Sometimes his ethics make his decisions/actions incredibly predictable. Mark needed to be a tad more nuanced, his characterization is overly blunt in some areas. I really liked that Kluger focused on the historical issues of 13th century England. He explores the reasoning behind the Magna Carta, presents some reasons as to why Philip Mark is cited by name in said document, and the tension between King John and the Church.
The Sheriff of Nottingham, Penguin Books, 1993, 9780140177039
This is a young adult retelling of the Robin Hood legend. While it is not nearly as complicated and nuanced as some other retellings, Gaughen’s trilogy is an interesting spin. In this series, Will Scarlet is actually a female and is Robin’s love interest. The name Scarlet originates from the color of the ribbons she wraps around her knife handles. Will is a pseudonym meant to keep people from guessing her real gender. Other than this twist, most of the narrative is standard fare. Robin is a displaced noble whose lands were seized, King Richard is fighting in the Crusades, the merry men rob from the rich to help the poor, and the Sheriff of Nottingham is on the warpath. The trilogy is told from Scarlet’s point-of-view and she is an interesting narrator. Be warned, she is no lady and spends most of the time talking like an uneducated peasant. But she is a flawed and compelling protagonist, just rough. What I do not enjoy is that Gaughen decided to include a horrible love triangle. Why do young adult books always include this plot device? Love triangles are never well-developed and always verge on the ridiculous. Anyways, Scarlet is in love with Robin and Little John is besotted with her. However, John is a womanizer and will not take no for answer. He kisses Scarlet and then “claims” her. Robin becomes angry and chews out Scarlet, even though she constantly told John that she does not want a relationship. The story would have been stronger without this silly “romance”. Anyways, this is not a revolutionary take on the legend, but Scarlet is an interesting character and is the only reason I included this trilogy. I did not like Gaughen’s depiction of Robin.